The Kentucky Invitational or should I say the Midwest Region had a very tidy 2nd Round. Despite there being a few close endings, all of the higher seeds won. It was the 3rd Round that gave us two wins by lower seeds. The two lower seeds to prevail were (5) West Virginia and (7) Wichita State. (1) Kentucky and (3) Notre Dame round out the Sweet 16 in this region.
There were a couple of matchups that pitted teams from close vicinities against each other. Notre Dame knocked off instate rival Butler and the Shockers from Wichita, Kansas handled “big brother” Kansas University to advance to the Sweet 16. Notre Dame made their way to Cleveland, Ohio with two close wins (69-65 over Northeastern and 67-64 over the Bulldogs). In the opening matchup, NE crushed the perimeter oriented Irish on the boards – 33 to 17 – but turned the ball over 16 times. The Fighting Irish only had 7 turnovers and they attempted 8 more free throws. Zach Auguste led the Irish with 25 points and steady senior guard Jerian Grant provided 17 points and 5 assists. Up by 2 with 3 seconds remaining, Grant came up with a steal. Auguste was fouled after the steal and went to the free throw line and made two free throws to ice the game. The 2nd game for the Irish was close from start to finish. Butler and ND played a thrilling OT game that saw the ACC tourney champs win by 3. The game was forced into OT after Notre Dame kept Butler from scoring in the waning seconds of regulation. In overtime, Grant scored or assisted on 7 of Notre Dame’s 12 points and finished the night with a 16 point -5 assists -5 rebound stat line. Grant and Butler’s Kameron Woods both played all 45 minutes of the contest. Steve Vasturia led the Irish with 20 points and guard Demetrius Jackson chipped in with 13 points. Despite shooting 6 for 20 from 3 the Irish battled to the win. They’ll need senior guard Pat Connaughton to improve his shooting in their next matchup. Connaughton shot 2-9 from 3-point range in the opening weekend games. Wichita St. advanced to the Round of 16 by beating two storied Men’s College Basketball teams. First they knocked off the Indiana Hoosiers 81-76 behind a career high tying 27-point performance from Fred VanVleet. Ron Baker chipped in with 15 points. Despite his poor shooting from the field, Baker was able to knock down 9 out of 10 at the charity stripe. In their hyped 3rd Round matchup, the Shockers faced Kansas. Senior guard Tekele Cotton led the way with 19 points and Fred VanVleet turned in another solid game with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. All five Wichita St. starters posted double figures while defensively they held KU to 35% shooting from the field. Wichita State started the 2nd half with a 3-point lead and broke the game open with a 12-4 run in the first 4 minutes.
In the top half of the Midwest Region Kentucky and West Virginia advanced. After not having his phone call answered by Jesus, Hampton’s head coach Edward Joyner, Jr. watched as the number 1 Wildcats of Kentucky had their way. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way with a double double (21 and 11). In their second game, UK played Cincinnati. It was a very ugly first 12:30 for both teams. At the official under 8 timeout the score was 17-16 in favor of UK. By the end of the first half Kentucky had a 7-point lead and it wasn’t much looking back from there. The Wildcats used their superior team depth and length to wear down the Bearcats. Cincy was also hampered by an injury to forward Octavius Ellis. Both teams shot under 40% from the field and Cincinnati held a 7-rebound advantage at the conclusion of the game. The difference was Kentucky doubled up on the number of free throw shots made and attempted by Cincy. Trey Lyles posted 11 points and 11 rebounds while Andrew Harrison scored 13 points. The Wildcats will face the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Sweet 16. WVU got there by beating Buffalo in their opening game and then knocking off Maryland. The Mountaineers were able to hold off the stingy Buffalo Bulls with clutch shooting from Tarik Phillip. After building an 11-point lead in the 2nd half, WVU saw it get erased by the 2:44 mark. With the game tied at 62, Devin Williams stepped to the line with 2:10 left to play and gave WVU the lead for good. After two Buffalo timeouts, Williams grabbed two crucial rebounds for the Mountaineers. One was on the defensive end following a missed layup by Justin Moss and the other came on the offensive end after Gary Browne missed a three pointer. Bob Huggins took a timeout after the rebound and set up a play. Senior guard Juwan Staten found Phillip in the corner for a 3 to ice the game with 29 seconds remaining. Staten had 15 points and 7 assists and Devin Williams put up 17 and 9 rebounds. West Virginia followed up their opening win with a victory over Maryland. Devin Williams backed up his first tournament game with a 16 points and 10 rebounds performance. The Mountaineers had 3 other starters post double-digit points. But the story of the game was 23 turnovers by Maryland. WVU is the Nation’s team leaders in steals per game and snatched 15 on Sunday. A factor leading to those 23 turnovers was the head injury to Maryland’s outstanding freshman guard Melo Trimble. Trimble was knocked out of the game briefly after a hard screen by WVU. He returned and but was again forced out for good after being kneed in the head on a play by teammate Damonte Dodd. WVU is making their first trip to the Sweet 16 since reaching the Final Four in 2010. They have the unenviable task of facing Kentucky but freshman guard Daxter Miles, Jr. is very confident after stating that Kentucky will “be 36-1” after Thursday’s game.
WVU brings a tough defense to the table versus UK but will they have enough depth and scoring to overcome the Wildcats? I don’t think they will and I’m sure UK will be motivated after the comments from Miles. The matchup between Notre Dame and Wichita St. should be entertaining. Two teams that can get in the open court and put up points when needed. Guard play between the two teams will be important and I’m looking forward to the matchup of VanVleet-Grant but the deciding factor will be post play. In the end I see UK coming out of this region.
A little fun with one of my favorite movies…Wildcats. You got Goldie Hawn, a young Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, and the legendary Nipsey Russell. The movie is full of great quotes, a cameo and song from LL Cool J. It’s a football movie but I’m sure we can sub in “basketball” for the chorus in this song.